Whispering Pines: Towering Inferno

In this month’s column, John Cross ’76 remembers watching, as a fourth-grader at neighboring Longfellow Elementary School, the construction of Coles Tower, and the fire that engulfed it in January 1964.

In December and January the sun is low enough in the southern sky at noon to turn Coles Tower into the gnomon, or pillar, of a giant sundial which casts a shadow that touches the southwest corner of Coleman Hall. Designed by Hugh Stubbins and built in 1963 and 1964, the 16-story tower was the physical expression of an experiment to provide an outward intellectual focus and create class cohesiveness for students in their senior year. The Senior Center, as it was originally known, combined a residential and dining complex with special programs and concerts, scholars-in-residence, and seminar offerings that probed current issues. For 15 years, under successive directors Bill Whiteside (History), Jim Ward (Mathematics), and Gabor Brogyanyi (Romance Languages), the Senior Center Program encouraged creative thought and action among students and faculty alike.

In the fall of 1963 I watched the construction of the tower from the classrooms and playground of the elementary school across the street, a source of both wonder and distraction for a fourth grader. It was also an ever-present reminder of a turbulent and challenging world outside Bowdoin and Brunswick – a two-year span encompassed John Glenn’s orbit of the earth, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the death of four young girls in the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Construction on the Senior Center continued into the winter of 1963-64, with most of the work in January concentrated on the 14th and 15th floors. By then the large construction crane on top of the building had lost some of its novelty, and much of the work was being done out of view, either too high to be seen easily from the steep angle of vision from the school or in interior spaces. Early in the evening of January 20, 1964, my family was startled to look out the dining room window of our home, located a few blocks from the College, and see bright orange flames shooting upwards from the tower. We slogged through the slush left by rains that had fallen on heavy snow and joined a crowd of students and neighbors in staring up at the tower and the fire crews that battled to contain the blaze.

A construction fire that may have begun with an electrical short circuit on the 14th floor was consuming the wooden scaffolding and forms for the concrete work. According to the account in The Brunswick Record, David Nelson ’64 and Robert Hale ’64 at the Delta Kappa Epsilon Fraternity house reported the fire to the Brunswick Fire Department at 6:33 p.m. Firefighters climbed the stairs to a standpipe on the 13th floor, but by then the fire had reached propane tanks stored on the 14th floor that were used to heat and cure concrete. After several explosions and propane-fueled flares the fire fighters were forced to withdraw. Dick Fontaine ’65 was on the roof of the Delta Sigma house, armed with a hose to make sure that burning embers didn’t spread to that building, when he took a spectacular photo of the flames engulfing the upper floors of the tower.

Fire crews responded from Topsham, Freeport, Bath, Gardiner, the Brunswick Naval Air Station and the Bath Iron Works, but the limitations of Brunswick’s 1949 65-foot ladder truck led Fire Chief George Gamache to observe that “It was a Boston-type fire fought with Brunswick-style equipment.” A spider web of hoses ran to hydrants on Coffin Street, Maine Street, Longfellow Avenue and College Street. The fire was brought under control by 9 p.m. Remarkably there were no injuries. The intense heat had caused the construction crane to buckle, the basement was filled with two feet of water, and the concrete on the 14th and 15th floors was heat-damaged and had to be replaced. The estimated bill for the repairs was $200,000, and was covered by insurance. Before the fire was even out, college officials and construction supervisors had ordered a new crane from Boston and lumber for replacement scaffolding. The basement was pumped out by the following morning.

Despite the spectacular fire, the building had demonstrated the safety features of its design and construction. What had burned were the construction materials and propane tanks, not the structural elements of the tower. The standpipe system functioned well, and damage to the building was restricted largely to the unfinished floors. Once the building was completed, fire officials remained confident that there would be no fires that could spread beyond the contents of a room. Nine months after being a “towering inferno” the Senior Center was open on schedule for the 1964-65 academic year and to the first of many classes of Bowdoin students to call it home.

For those among you who would like to get a live look at the campus and the town from the top of the tower, the Bowdoin web site has a streaming web cam that allows the viewer to control the angle and direction of the camera, and to zoom in or pull back. The view from the top – both literally and figuratively – far exceeds what this former fourth grader ever could have imagined.

John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations

Comments

  1. David Treadwell says:

    I was a senior at Bowdoin that year, and I remember several students happily drinking beers and watching as the fire roared away. Some students were upset about the whole concept of the Senior Center, believing that it would hurt the fraternity system by removing seniors from the houses.

  2. Jed Lyons '74 says:

    John Cross’s story about the fire during the construction of Coles Tower reminds me of another memorable fire in the Psi Upsilon house aka The Old Green Barn aka Quinby House today. It was Winters Weekend of 1972 when a sand candle ( a popular mood enhancer back in the early 1970’s ) set a wooden table on fire in my third floor bedroom. The heat set off the entire house sprinkler system and forced the residents and our weekend dates out into the pre-dawn cold and snow. The local fire department arrived soon thereafter, but couldn’t figure out how to turn the water off so it kept running for hours and eventually filled the basement with black water that had probably been sitting in the pipes for decades. Basement residents Steve Hannock ’74 and the late Gridley Tarbell ’74 were hip deep in water by the time it was finally turned off. There was no fire damage other than a singed ceiling in my room, but the water damage was significant.

  3. Ned Robinson, '64 says:

    As the Senior Center was NOT a popular concept among the students, the fire provided a nice evening of entertainment. My slides showing the event are not very steady or helpful, but my main memory was seeing the feeble water pressure available from that 65-foot ladder.
    And, with the only building that high in the state other than Portland, it took a taller ladder from that city to reach to fire up at the top. This took a while to arrive which allowed for added entertainment.
    Quite a night!

    The other memory during that Winter was one clear, crisp morning when a king size can of Bud was spotted out at the end of that same crane.

  4. Benet Pols says:

    This captures one of my first fully formed memories. I was gazing out the east kitchen window across the neighbor’s yard toward Maine Street, my family at the table and my father seated right over my shoulder. When I looked out the same window this morning, I found the view blocked by trees though I imagine such a fire would still be visible.

    My first remarks struck the family as the improbable babbling of a three year old; I can see my father’s amused face. Shortly there was much commotion. In a second snippet I am on the front porch as the garden hose is unfurled and dragged round to wet down the roof; I imagine my brother’s enthusiasm for such task.

    This is all that persists of the fire for me. Vivid, but perhaps more so than is truly possible given the times this story has been retold.

    The construction itself was a fascination; I see myself being wheeled down South Street to stare at the “crams.” The building still intrigues me. I spent hours climbing its stairs as a child….before key cards and campus security existed. People who’ve moved to town call it ugly, but I find the evening light shining off its concrete cap at sunset great. Tall as it is, it’s the last thing around to catch the setting sun.

  5. Al DeMoya, '72 says:

    It’s amazing what comes up both from John and the commentaries (Senior Center construction on fire??? Psi U house flooded on a frigid morning, culprit confesses???) Just sensational!

  6. Keith Halloran '77 says:

    WOW !!! I never knew about this before … and I lived happily in 13-D for my last two years at Bowdoin, the Northwest corner with views of the campus and the DKE House below … I actually did the Towering Inferno in High School and it was gripping throughout. I’m glad I never knew about this until now …

  7. Alison Pols says:

    I too remember the night the Senior Center burned. My younger brother was the first to look out the window and declare that the Senior Center was on fire. Of course we did not believe him initially, but he did convince us all to look out the window. It was an unbelievable sight.

    On a side note, the construction site provided us with much fun, and a source of income. My sister and I would trudge over to the site daily after school (that same elementary school that John mentions) to collect the soda bottles left behind by the workers. From there we would head to Higgin’s market and exchange the bottles for penny candy.

    I never lived in the tower when I was a student, but I did spend some time as a child in the Whiteside’s house, as they lived in the complex, and had an open door policy for faculty children. We had great fun pretending the whole complex belonged to us. For that matter, the whole campus served as a big back yard for us. All the doors were unlocked, and there were many secret places to explore. Life in Brunswick in the 1960’s was good. It still is.

  8. Ted Westlake '73 says:

    I was living in the first floor alcove single in Psi U when Jed gave us all a bath. The water came down the staircase like Niagara. Jed tried to stem the flow by putting a ski hat over a sprinkler head in his room. Shredded it.

  9. Jeffrey Huntsman says:

    I watched it from outside my apartment on the first block of McKeen Street off the campus. As others have noted, its construction (at the time, with the brilliance of undergraduate humor, that was called its “erection”) was not popular, for the reasons others have cited. But no one has mentioned that its popular name at the time was the “Senior Silo.”

  10. Fred Newman says:

    In the early ’60’s when the Senior Center was still in the planning stages, it was referred to as “Spike’s Peak” in reference to the college president at the time, James Stacy Coles, whose nickname among the students was “Spike” and who was the driving force behind the Senior Center.

    Fred Newman ’63

  11. Fred Filoon '64 says:

    I remember the event so well, mainly because my roommate for four years was Sarge Collier who was employed by the construction company on a part time basis. Sarge had spent summers working in construction and was an experienced worker on the site. I recall that he was particularly helpful to the firefighters due to his knowledge of the Center’s plans and location of supplies and equipment.

  12. When the Senior Center burned, our family was living at 9 South St. My father, the late Donald G Adam, was in the English Department in the early 60’s, and I was a first-grader at Longfellow School while John Cross was in fourth grade. My sister and I were woken up, bundled up, and taken away from our house lest some burning materials fall on us.

    I have only very vague memories of that night, but I do clearly recall the flames against the night sky, and how strange it was that this was taking place right in our back yard. I don’t recall whether we eventually slept at home that night, but as John notes, the Center opened up very shortly afterward. I think I recall attending a grand opening function, though over the years I’ve been in the Center-cum-Coles Tower that I may be conflating my history.

  13. My Father was a Brunswick Fire Fighter , I was 6 years old and we all went over to watch one of the biggest fires in Brunswick history. I think the Times Record has a picture of a group of Fire fighter on the roof. My Father is in that group. But I could have seen it at the Fire House.

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